Historically, perjury has been defined as “the wilful giving under oath, in a judicial proceeding or course of justice, of false testimony material to the issue or point of inquiry.” 2 Bishop, New Criminal Law § 1015 (8th ed. 1892). Common law perjury was limited to a false oath in a judicial proceeding. “False swearing,” which is often confused with perjury, is a deliberate falsehood, given under oath, in a non-judicial proceeding.
Perjury Under Massachusetts Law
In Massachusetts, perjury is defined and criminalized by G.L. c. 268, §1. Unlike common law perjury, in Massachusetts an individual commits the crime of perjury by either intentionally giving false testimony in a judicial proceeding or deliberately giving a false statement while under oath.
With regard to false testimony, to convict a defendant the Commonwealth must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he:
- Willfully and intentionally falsely asserted information in court;
- Which dealt with a matter material to the issue in question; and,
- While lawfully required to testify truthfully, and after swearing to do so.
To convict a defendant of perjury by giving a false statement under oath, the Commonwealth must prove the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt:
- The defendant was under oath or affirmation;
- When he falsely swore or affirmed to a matter relative to the reason he was under oath; and,
- Did so with willful intent to deceive.
Matters “material to the issue” or “relative to the reason” are those statements likely to influence the conclusion of the case. A witness may make untrue testimony or statements that go to the very heart of the matter in dispute by mistake or defect of memory. However, to qualify as perjury, the untrue testimony or statement must be made willfully, corruptly false, and with the intent to deceive. Indeed, G.L. c. 268, §1 specifically allows an individual indicted for perjury to rebut the allegation by claiming that at the time he made the untrue declaration, he believed it to be true, or its falsity was the result of a good faith mistake or error.
Because perjury interferes with the administration of justice, it is punished severely. An individual convicted for committing perjury while testifying at a capital trial may be sentenced to life imprisonment or any term of years. Those convicted of perjury in non-capital trials can be sentenced to up to twenty years in state prison, two-and-a-half-years in the House of Correction, and/or fined up to $1,000.00.
Seeking the Advice of a Massachusetts Criminal Defense Lawyer
If you have been called to testify or to provide an affidavit in a case, you may be concerned about being accused of perjury. Prosecutions for perjury are rare, as courts recognize that witnesses are often asked to testify to observations, events, or documents occurring months (or even years) earlier and their memories likely fade or change over time. If you feel pressured by the Commonwealth’s agents (police officer, prosecutor), a lawyer, or a party to testify to matters that are untrue, seek the advice of a Massachusetts criminal defense lawyer before taking the stand or submitting an affidavit.
Perjury Under Federal Law
Perjury is also a federal crime, defined and criminalized by 18 U.S.C. §1621. Federal law is similar to Massachusetts law in that the U.S. Attorney’s Office must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that:
- The defendant intentionally made a false statement under oath (or an equivalent);
- The statement was made during a judicial proceeding (in court); and,
- The statement was material to the proceeding.
Alternatively, the U.S. Attorney’s Office may prove beyond a reasonable doubt that:
- The defendant was under the pain and penalty of perjury when
- The defendant willfully subscribed material to be true when he did not believe it to be true.